Cutifani Leads by Putting People First

Mark Cutifani leads AngloGold Ashanti (he has moved over to AngloAmerican since the publication of this article), a gold company that has presence in twenty five countries. It is the most globally spread and balanced gold company in the world, with approximately 63 000 employees, half of whom are in South Africa. They generate about 9 billion $ revenue a year, with approximately 3 billion cash with which to pay dividends, capital, etc.

What they do is technically not simple as they mine some of the deepest mines in the world. There are challenges like safety, environmental management, community relationships, and a whole range of other complexities. Yet, they aim to grow the business by about 25% over the next three years and to be one of the top five mining companies in the world. Cutifani and his team are aiming high, and it certainly will be near impossible to achieve this without a very high level of commitment from the workforce. So, people will have to be the most important assets inside AngloGold Ashanti, or not?

During his first meeting with staff, in his first week he made a statement: “People are not our most important assets”. Of course there was a deathly silence, and then he continued: “People are more than assets. People are the business. I am not a chair, or a table, or even an ounce of gold or a building. These are all assets. I’m more than an asset; I’m a person that can contribute in various ways. At the end of the day, when we as managers sit back and reflect on why we are here, why we do what we do, we do it with people; it’s for people. Every conversation we have is directed for and with people”.  According to Cutifani “if you strip everything aside, leadership is about people, because people are the business”.

When a leader makes such a statement then everything he does must be in line with this ethos. What does he do by way of example to authenticate his strong belief in people? For Cutifani symbols are very important in leadership, so he listed a few things he does on a daily basis as he heads for the office. For example, when he drives in he acknowledges every individual, including the security guard, with a friendly thumbs up or wave. Then, he does not have a designated CEO parking space. He says: “I am like everybody else. I come to work; I get paid for being here. If I am last in the morning and it means I have to walk two hundred meters, that’s okay. Like everybody else I come here to do the best I can and go home to my family.” Walking from his car he acknowledges every person in the car park. When he started as CEO it seemed like “everybody walked head down, not acknowledging one another or saying hallo”, he adds.

He stops and has a brief conversation with the security guard. He walks through the offices in such a way that he can greet everybody. Cutifani does not have a door to his office. If he is in his office anyone in the organisation may walk in and engage him. When he is in his back room it means he is doing something with or without someone where he prefers not to be disturbed. He insists that everybody calls him by his name and not ‘Meneer’ or ‘Sir’. He does not wear a tie, to be conducive to their environment. Every email he receives from an employee he tries to answer within forty eight hours – nine times out of ten.

And so he continued explaining the little things he started doing very deliberately “to demonstrate that AngloGold Ashanti is about people”.

What prepared Cutifani most for this overwhelming leadership task are all the experiences and mistakes he made over the years and the ability to learn from the mistakes. But, a very important influence on him as a leader has been his exposure to a researcher called Dr. Elliott Jaques and his concept of “the design of a requisite organisation”. According to Cutifani Jaques acknowledges that “leadership is about, firstly capability and understanding of what the issues are, and being able to understand and solve or navigate through complex areas, to add value to those in the organisation that can’t necessarily see where the pathway is”.

Cutifani likes this approach and adds that “recognizing capability and the ability of individuals to see and solve complex problems is a starting point to recognizing talent within the organisaiton.” He believes this ability is identifiable at a very early age – watch for individuals that seem to solve complex challenges with what seems to be relative ease. After identifying such individuals early in their careers one should try to give them as much exposure as possible so that they can develop a breath of skills.

Cutifani comments: “The real role of leadership is to make it very clear to people, at all levels of the organisation what their role is, how they make a contribution and what they can do to make a difference within the organisaiton, and, very importantly, have them feel like they are making a contribution that is making a difference”.

To him leadership is also about articulating a vision, direction, and helping people feel what the vision is. But he adds: “The ability then, to put the people, the processes and the structures in place to actually align the work that happens on a daily basis, is the management part of leadership. And, if you don’t have the management part of leadership, all you have is exhortation. If you have the management part you have the substance that backs it up and reinforces the role of the leader in being able to take the organisation through to delivering something special”

Cutifani struck me as a leader with insight and wisdom. He sees the big picture and seems to implement a leadership approach that is able to embrace and navigate through the complex times we live in. I wondered whether he is not at times frustrated when his, or other leaders around him, just can’t see the bigger picture. His response was again indicative of a big picture thinker: “Leaders are fully accountable for the impact they have on others. At the end of the day there is no point in getting frustrated, because I am accountable. What I have to do is think through how I can better land the message. Because the minute the leader starts blaming someone else, by for example saying ‘I can’t get the message through’, you are immediately saying the recipient is a dummy. The minute you think that, go and look in the mirror and come to grips with who the dummy is. Your job as the leader is to deliver the message. And leadership is patience.”

So, when the message does not get through his frustration is with himself for not being able to land it so that it resonates. If he cannot convince someone of his argument then it is not well structured or put together or he hasn’t understood where the person is coming from. And, of course “their view may be right, which is why I can’t convince them”, he adds.

About eight years ago he and his then management team were discussing a specific issue where half the management team got the point and the other half continued asking questions that he found annoying. Instead of listening he started lecturing. The more the team pushed back the louder Cutifani got. During a subsequent 360 feedback it surfaced that when he cannot land the message he starts to get more difficult and starts to lecture. He learnt that “at the end of the day you are accountable for how you land the message. Lecturing isn’t going to help. Take a step back, listen to the question and work with them on the question, and you may find that you get to a common landing a lot quicker”.

In my article on Lindiwe Mazibuko I stated the following: “In South Africa we have extraordinary leadership challenges and we pride ourselves on our diversity. To successfully engage at least these dynamics, leaders must learn the art of avoiding ‘restrictive leadership’ by adopting its opposite, which is ‘seamless leadership’ – leading with a balanced big picture in mind, while, in an inclusive manner, confidently confronting barriers and boundaries to full potential of whatever entity.” No doubt Cutifani is not perfect and he and his management team will know this. But, he certainly demonstrates or strives to demonstrate the qualities of a seamless leader.


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Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

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